A temporary foreign worker from Mexico plants strawberries on a farm in Mirabel, Que., Wednesday, May 6, 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues in Canada and around the world. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press via AP)
CNN  — 

Quarantined and alone in a Canadian hotel room, Alvaro was pensive and anxious. He said he wasn’t so worried about testing positive for Covid-19, but about the paycheck he couldn’t afford to lose.

“My family depends on me financially and as of right now I do not really know if they will pay us,” said Alvaro, a father and temporary foreign worker from Mexico. CNN agreed not to publish his full name as he fears being punished by his employer.

Alvaro is one of at least 600 migrant farm workers who have tested positive for Covid-19 in Canada since arriving in the country in early spring. According to local health officials, most were infected in Canada and two have died – revelations that suggest failings in the government’s declared protocols to protect this vulnerable group of essential workers.

When the coronavirus pandemic closed Canada’s borders, the Trudeau government announced an important exception: a subsidy program that would allow foreign manual laborers to come into Canada before the growing season. In order to forestall any potential spread of infection, the government would pay for a two-week mandatory quarantine.

But workers say their quarantines were poorly handled by some employers, with little or no government oversight, and risked exposing them to the deadly virus.

In documents provided to CNN, at least three migrant workers described being kept in quarantine facilities that did not allow for social distancing, with crowded kitchens and bathrooms. One described arriving at a bunk house where there was no food supplied for the 14-day stay. He wrote to the federal government explaining he and others were forced to break quarantine and buy groceries in the community.

Employers that CNN has spoken with said they arranged for hotel rooms and food to be provided immediately in quarantine. But even for workers who were able to quarantine safely, crowded living and working conditions nevertheless increased their exposure to the deadly virus, according to the local public health unit.

“They came here, they self-isolated for two weeks and they picked it up since they’ve been here,” said Doug Ford, premier of the hardest-hit Ontario Province on Monday. He added, “I don’t want any finger pointing at these hard-working migrant workers. They’re good people, they mean well, and they’re hard workers too.”

Cheap communal housing: a perfect home for the coronavirus

Alvaro worked for Scotlynn Group, a Norfolk county, Ontario produce company that grows a variety of vegetables. He said he tested positive for the virus in early June and has no idea how he was infected, but he described his living conditions in the employer-provided bunk house of a Scotlynn Group-owned farm “outrageous.”

Toilets and kitchens were communal, he said, and migrant workers slept 6 or 8 to a room, making it impossible to keep your distance.

Canadian employers hire tens of thousands of temporary foreign workers every year through the federal Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program (SAWP), which ties temporary workers to a specific employer through their work visa. They rely on the employer for housing for which they pay a small amount. Alvaro, for example, pays 14 dollars every other week.

In theory, employer-provided communal bunk houses allow temporary workers to save more money to send home to their families. But workers in the program have long voiced concerns and complaints about their housing, pay and working conditions. Now, as shown by the nine different agricultural outbreaks of the Covid-19 so far in the Windsor-Essex region, such housing also leaves them vulnerable to communicable diseases, including Covid-19.

“Unfortunately, because of the way they are housed or what their accommodation looks like, they spread it to pretty much everyone who lives in the same house,” Dr. Wajid Ahmed, medical officer of health for Windsor-Essex County, Ontario, told CNN.

So far, 167 of the Scotlynn Group’s 216 migrant workers have tested positive for Covid-19 in the last few weeks, with several admitted to hospital, according to Scott Biddle, the company’s president and CEO.

“This has been a tough time, that’s for sure,” said Biddle in an interview with CNN. He added that the majority of his employees who work in the field, planting, tending and picking, are temporary workers from Mexico.

Biddle said his workers spent quarantine in a hotel, and described the conditions in his bunk houses as up to government guidelines. “Our accommodations meet or exceed all Canadian standards. They’re all fairly new, built in the last 10 years,” said Biddle.

Accommodation for migrant workers in Ontario. Courtesy of the Migrant Workers Alliance for Change.

But advocacy groups say local and national guidelines on living conditions for temporary workers are weak and inconsistent, with little resources for proper enforcement. In a recent report titled “Unheeded Warnings: Covid-19 and Migrant Workers in Canada,” the Migrant Workers Alliance for Change, an advocacy group working to protect migrant workers’ rights, accused some agricultural employers of exploiting migrant workers and failing to take adequate measures to ensure their health.

The report alleged that some workers were housed in dilapidated bunk houses, that their workplaces in some cases were still too crowded to avoid the rapid spread of the virus, and that workers were not properly advised of their rights when they do get sick. The organization called on the government to temporarily close workplaces with outbreaks for deep cleaning and an evaluation of health procedures.

The group also accused the Canadian government of having abdicated its responsibility toward workers brought in from abroad. “They are treated as disposable and expendable even in a situation like this when lives are at stake,” said Karen Cocq, an activist with the Migrant Workers Alliance for Change in an interview with CNN.

Workers and advocates also told CNN that there was no PPE available in greenhouses and packing facilities where workers are “stacked” in close proximity.

Bill George, chair of the Ontario Fruit and Vegetable Growers’ Association, told CNN there were challenges with obtaining PPE in the first few weeks of the pandemic, but said his members are working hard to address shortcomings and protect the safety of all workers.

The association, an Ontario lobby group, said it is up to the government to ensure farms are meeting safety requirements and pointed out that most inspections do not result in violations. George said the industry is meeting all the requirements of current regulations when it comes to both workplaces and employee housing.

“We are an essential frontline service and it’s unfortunate that happened, but we are doing anything that we can do as an industry to prevent that, we are doing our best,” said George.

The government’s responsibility

Bunkhouses for migrant workers in Ontario. Courtesy of the Migrant Workers Alliance for Change.

Mexico announced Monday that it will conduct a safety review of Canadian health policies and procedures before allowing any more temporary workers to travel to Canada to work in the agricultural sector.

“This is a temporary pause in order to determine the circumstances surrounding the safety conditions on farms,” said a Mexican government official with first-hand knowledge of the discussions but who is not authorized to speak on the issue.

The official said Ambassador Juan Jose Gomez Camacho, on behalf of the Mexican government, has been in daily communication with the Canadian government to try and understand why and how hundreds of Mexican workers have been infected with Covid-19, weeks after completing the mandatory 14 day quarantine in Canada.

Both the Canadian and Ontario governments said they are reviewing health and employment protocols, but controlling the outbreaks has been left largely to already overworked local health units like Dr. Wajid’s that covers up to 10,000 workers in Windsor-Essex alone.

Dr. Wajid said his health unit is now doing extensive testing for up to 10,000 migrant workers, and conducting daily calls and some in-person visits to check on workers’ health. His unit is also trying to enforce more stringent guidelines for employers regarding isolating those with symptoms and providing for better PPE and distancing in the workplace.

In guidelines issued by the province of Ontario, agriculture employers have been asked to stagger start times and breaks, restrict the number of people on site, minimize the number of employees using a piece of equipment and install barriers between workers where practical.

But local health units report that those measures continue to be a challenge for some agriculture producers.

Migrant workers “come here, all the way here, taking all those risks and challenges to feed their families and it’s unfortunate that at the end of the day they still lose their battle and lose their lives,” Dr. Wajid said.

Early warnings

For Alvaro, the entire process has been overwhelming. Scotlynn Group told CNN a government insurance program enables workers such as Alvaro to be paid for 30 hours per week while in quarantine with Covid-19.

But Alvaro fears the virus will cost him – he says he normally works longer than 30 hours per week and is unsure if he must now formally apply for sick pay. He feels that he and other workers have been “sacrificed” by Canada, he adds.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said during a press conference last week that the country had to do “a better job” of protecting temporary agricultural workers. This week, he added that Canada would follow up to ensure workers’ safety in the future.

But experts point out that the government had ample warning about the dangers of its quarantine strategy months ago.

In April, Amir Attaran, a professor in both Law and Medicine at the University of Ottawa, testified to a Canadian parliamentary committee that the program to quarantine and then try to ensure the health of migrant workers during the pandemic was ill-advised.

Attaran told CNN agricultural producers lacked the time or support from the government to implement measures to control and contain the virus among migrant workers.

“I said it’s crazy, it’s not going to work, what makes you think that a person who is expert at growing asparagus or expert in raising cattle is going to know how to manage a quarantine? It’s fanciful,” Attaran recalled.

“This is frankly an incompetent country in terms of public health,” Attaran added. “They’re willing to write checks ad nauseum to blunt or assume the liability of the epidemic. So, they will pour out as much money as needed to assume the liability of failure but they’re not willing to insert themselves in such a way as to prevent failure.” He said that it was simply more expedient to ‘throw money’ at industries like agriculture instead meticulously following up on public health protocols.

And that is part of the reason why advocates for migrants are still worried for the health of workers as this pandemic drags on. “I think we’re going to see piecemeal responses unless we continue to put a lot of attention on this issue and to demand much more,” said Cocq of the Migrant Workers Alliance.